It was a late night session in the autumn of 2006. After the bars had closed and the winds had died and the rain had quit beating the windows. Four friends picked up whatever instruments happened to be on hand and began to play. Somebody hit record and started singing.
It’s been called a bloody mess, a waste of time, a work of genius. Even the name of the song has been often debated. Its formal title, heralding the song’s publication onto YouTube shortly after its conception: “Coming Down the Pipeline, Out of the Mountain, Into the Stream of Your Canadian Car.”
Most people call the thing “Broken Pipes.”
And the history of the song itself is well known. It seemed to wallow for a year or two online, but was all the while quietly gaining a type of cult following, until finally popular versions—not so much covers, as adaptations—began to emerge around the turn of the decade. Ryan Adams is said to have played the thing for a stint on tour, between Austin and Bakersfield. Beach House, Wolf Parade and Spoon all put their own spin on the material. But little has ever been known of the four-member band who created the song.
I’ve spent the last six months trying to piece together all that I could find on the topic of these four friends. They called themselves The Moonshine, but whether they were ever really a band is still up for debate. It’s unknown whether or not they recorded anything else. Rumour has it that there was at least one attempt at a follow-up to “Broken Pipes,” but if such a recording was made it’s been since misplaced, or else willfully shuffled, for better or worse, into the waste of days gone past.
Felix Morrow was the one who owned the equipment—the instruments, the microphones, the interface and software. Even the room where The Moonshine cut their track was his—his bedroom in a rented house. There are a caustic few who claim that the only shred of musical quality in “Broken Pipes” can be found in the guitar and backing vocals which Felix contributed. Those who knew him say that Felix was energetic, frenetic, a student of languages, philosophy and social science. He was ambitious, but his energy for too many years led him in too many directions. He could never capitalize on any one of his works. For instance, this song for him was only an outgrowth of a natural process of accumulating equipment, of trying to work himself into a focussed place, whence he could make music. In his history, there were countless other recordings like this one, and the fact that this was arguably his most successful must be understood, according to his fans, as a disappointment. That he didn’t even give the song any post-recorded mixing time is evidence of how little he cared for it. Felix was someone known to work for ten to fifteen hours at a time, mixing a song to get it just right. Once he even went so far, tweaking and perfecting things, that his hard drive caught on fire, physically burning all the work and recordings he had made in a six month period.
Felix’s singular dream was to produce his own music and, after graduating and bumming around for a while, a series of breakups and bad luck years led him back onto his parents’ rural property, where he seemed poised to finally focus his energies. Converting an old barn into a working studio, Felix had apparently begun to record what was going to be his first album in an oeuvre of political-pop when his life was cut tragically short. His car, a ’92 white Chevy Lumina, was found one snowy morning in December 2014, crashed into a highway divider. His body had been thrown twenty feet into the woods. It was said to be loosely wrapped around a tree.
The only woman in the group, Lydia Davidson, was a painter by trade. In the recording of “Broken Pipes,” she plays what some have argued is a banjo tuned to an open Db minor, in defiance of the song’s dominant A major key. Almost nothing is known now of her whereabouts. Back in 2009, she told a friend that she was heading up the Northern Pacific Coast to work at a fish camp and to paint. An inveterate stoner, she claimed that more than anything else, she wanted to paint the shape of the water. Asked what water would she want to paint, she’d say, “Give me water, any water and I’ll paint it. I’ll paint the water in a bathtub, the water in a sink. I’ll paint the shape of the light in the water in a glass as you raise it to your lips to take a drink.”
Philip McGinnis was a writer, and if not for the alcohol involved, he probably would never have been there that night, banging the drum which many have called the backbone of the song. His heavy-handed rhythm (said to have been played with two clenched fists on a plastic-headed bongo drum) stands as one of the few consistencies lasting throughout the eight-minute length of the piece. In the years after playing with The Moonshine, Philip made a go of it at being a writer. He is said to have been talented. He published stories in a number of magazines, became a fixture briefly in the Toronto theater scene. But in his works, there was always an element of descending to the depths. Since 2010, Philip has sustained himself with working in bars. He’s moved back and forth across the country. He’s not been publishing much of anything, but travels within a narrow scene of fellow bartenders, waiters and waitresses, staying up all night, doing god-knows-what, but maybe gathering some quality material. There are many who want to believe that he is busy, quietly crafting some body of work, but the longer he remains within his chosen life, the more unlikely this seems.
David Archer sings that Time is a tit that the world can’t hang its marbles from. Also, Money, money couldn’t kill; there’s lovers on your dollar bill. And it’s possibly ad hoc lyrics such as these which, more than any other aspect of the song, have been the most lasting signature of “Broken Pipes.”
After that night, David continued making music for a while. He recorded other works with Felix, often leaving these in Felix’s hands for further production. He recorded a string of solo albums with distribution never reaching further than a circle of his friends. In 2011, he married his long time girlfriend, and shortly after that they had a kid. Of all the members of The Moonshine, David has wound up in many ways living the most stereotypically normal life—with a wife, a child, a car, a cat, a mortgage and a full-time job. These days, it is a struggle for him to find the time to exercise his creativity. Speaking some six months ago, in an interview with a German art-rock magazine (similarly looking to uncover the story of The Moonshine), David said that there’s a constant noise inside his head. “I’m so full of ideas, but I haven’t got the time to get anything down,” he says.
Asked if he ever listens back to “Broken Pipes,” David laughs. “I don’t listen to my old songs, no. I’ve tried, but it’s an embarrassment, you know?”
But then he went on to say, “I always thought the people who were fearless, who created things without any concern for how they would be heard, without any inhibition, that those were a lucky, chosen few, who would get to do just what they wanted in their lives, and that surely their courage would be rewarded. Only, then I realize, we were those people.”
Speaking of Broken Pipes, he says that, “We put everything into that song, everything we had, and then the audience responded. But what becomes of that?”
“Now I’m thirty-two years old, and OK, yes, if you want to know the truth, I do sometimes listen to that song, but it bewilders me. Because I know what went into that song—our heart and soul, if you’ll forgive the cliché—but what do I get out of it all these years later? What does anyone get out of it? Whatever it is, it’s not the same as what it was. Or maybe it is the same, but I’ve changed. Or, maybe everything has changed, but somehow, only the song remains. And what good is that?”